By David Templeton
It began eight years ago, with the publication of a Pacific Sun story in which I described my 4-year-old realization that the presents brought to me by Santa Claus were covered in wrapping paper with tiny, smiling polar bears on it. I recognized that paper, having been with my mother when she bought several rolls downtown at the Cress Five and Dime in Ontario, California.
That moment of understanding—like watching a popsicle in a frying pan, my belief in Santa melting before my eyes—marked the end of my faith in the magical man and his flying reindeer. It also marked the beginning of my commitment, should I ever have kids of my own someday, to make sure that I paid better attention to the details of “playing Santa.” It was a commitment that arguably backfired when my son ended up believing in “Mr. C.” until he was 14.
That story was eventually turned into a solo performance piece titled Polar Bears that I first presented last year at Main Stage West Theater in Sebastopol, and am performing again this year at Sonoma Arts Live, at Andrew’s Hall in Sonoma.
Every year since the original article was published, I’ve asked a randomly selected group of people “the Santa question:” “How old were you when you stopped believing?” I’ve asked stand-up comics, actors and directors, self-help authors and cast members from the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. This year, I aimed the question at a group of people well-acquainted with the power and importance of fantasy in our lives, along with an intimate knowledge of the ways that human imagination can, if improperly handled, lead to tragedy. The group? Horror-fiction writers.
Last October, Word Horde Books published the anthology Eternal Frankenstein, featuring 16 stories inspired by Mary Shelley’s epic tale of invention gone awry. I asked some of the contributors to tell me their own stories of Santa Claus, and the moment when they learned that Santa was different than they had been led to believe.
“As a kid in the mid-1970s, I once wrote a letter to Santa, mailing it to ‘Santa Claus, North Pole,’” recalls Ross Lockhart, owner and publisher of Word Horde Books and editor of Eternal Frankenstein. He explains that it was written at a time when he was beginning to have serious doubts about the white-bearded superhero from the North.
“The letter was a sort of ‘Hail Mary pass’ to prove his existence,” Lockhart says. “Surprisingly, I received a reply—a personalized note printed on Santa’s own stationery. I had proof! But when I proudly showed it to a friend, my friend insisted, ‘It’s fake. Santa’s dead!’ In retrospect, that friend was going through some heavy stuff, with divorcing parents and other issues at home.”
The idea that his treasured letter might likely be a fabrication devastated the young Lockhart. “I was crushed,” he says. “Nothing could reassure me that Santa was, indeed, real. But Christmas still came, and it still felt magical, even though I was beginning to see behind the artifice.”
Lockhart has since accepted that the very fakery of Santa Claus is itself a magical thing, a remarkable phenomenon in which millions of people conspire together to delight and inspire children, in one of the largest single acts of mass con-artistry ever attempted.
“Today, I understand that Santa Claus is alive and well,” he says, “in all of us.”
Anya Martin, who authored the delightfully kitschy historical science fiction story The Un-Bride, or No Gods and Marxists for the collection, recalls that her understanding of the truth about Santa did not evaporate in a single moment, as was the case with me and the bear paper.
“Weirdly,” she says, “I don’t have any specific memory of when I stopped believing. I do know there was a time when I got gifts from Santa and also got gifts from my parents—and one time I found the gifts wrapped in their closet.”
She was, she estimates, in third grade at the time. It was, if nothing else, a confirmation of something she’d long suspected.
“I’m not sure whether there were any actual gifts signed as being from Santa in the closet,” Martin says. “My biggest memory of that moment was that I had asked for a book of fairy tales, and my mom wrote, ‘Is this a book of fairy tales?’ on the wrapping paper of one of the packages. On Christmas, when I opened it, I found it was the Children’s Bible, complete with illustrations of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus! That was my mom’s secular humor.”
Nathan Carson, a notable crafter of monster stories, is the author of Wither on the Vine; or Strickfaden’s Monster, also in the Frankenstein anthology.
“I have no distinct memory of when I discovered there was no Santa Claus,” Carson says. “I’m guessing I would have been about 7 or 8, and it was probably spoiled for me by a classmate at public school in rural Oregon. That said, coming from a pagan-atheist goat farm as I did, stories of Santa and Jesus were presented to me with the lightest touch.”
In other words, Santa played a fairly minimal role in the author’s early life.
“I do, however, distinctly recall believing in a fictional character from local Oregon television,” Carson says. “In 1978, the Pacific Power Company ran a very popular ad campaign with a mascot named the Kite Man. This 39-second gem was recently released to YouTube to the overwhelming joy of nostalgic Oregonians who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.”
In the commercial, a group of exuberant kids answer safety questions posed by a mustachioed man in a giant kite suit with a polka-dotted bowtie.
“Is a safe kite made of metal, ever?” he asks the kids.
“Never!!!” they shout with glee.
“Do you stay away from streets, antennas and power lines?”
“All the time!”
“What about frogs?” he then asks.
“I like frogs,” one scary-serious little girl says with a nod.
The ad ends with Kite Man eliciting a promise that if their kites ever become tangled around a power line, they will have their parents call Kite Man for help at Pacific Power. It’s as bizarre a public service message as one is likely to encounter, but for the young Carson, it was magical.
“One night, in 1979, when I was 6 years old, the power went out in our country farmhouse,” he explains. “I went to bed by candlelight. In the morning, the power was restored. I asked my parents what had happened, and they told me that the Kite Man had swooped in by dawn light, and flown far up into the power lines and fixed them himself by hand.
“I was so distraught that my parents hadn’t woken me up to see the Kite Man,” he says. “That, surely, must be how other kids felt when they discovered that there was no Santa. I still think of the Kite Man often.”
If Carson has learned anything from his brush with Santa, it’s that some magic is best served with a dose of fiction.
“Though Kite Man is surely the brainchild of an energy utility, a local advertising firm and a savvy actor with a mustache, his lessons have stuck with me after nearly 40 years,” he says. “Also, I like frogs.”